February 18, 1863 (Wednesday)
For a time following the Confederate attack upon the Union blockade of Charleston Harbor, the wind seemed to be blowing Southerly. Fewer and fewer blockaders were seen from forts around the city and, though the blockade wasn’t officially broken, perhaps it had been after all.
Two weeks later, however, on February 13, General P.G.T. Beauregard, commanding the Charleston defenses, reported that eight Federal ships, including an ironclad, had returned. Three days later, while on an inspection tour in Savannah, Georgia, Beauregard wrote Richmond about his hunch.
“Everything indicates an early attack on Charleston or Savannah, probably former,” warned the General. “Enemy is accumulating a large force at Port Royal [SC]; several iron-clads are there.” He hoped that he could be reinforced in time.
On the 17th, he wrote a proclamation to be published the following day (on this date). Just prior to its publication, Beauregard wanted Charleston to be evacuated by noncombatants, and for all soldiers and officers on furlough to be recalled. He also put out a call to the area slave owners to donate their slaves to the Southern cause for thirty days.
To the rest of the people, he issued this proclamation:
It has become my solemn duty to inform the authorities and citizens of Charleston and Savannah that the movements of the enemy’s fleet indicate an early land and naval attack on one or both of these cities, and to urge that all persons unable to take an active part in the struggle shall retire.
It is hoped that this temporary separation of some of you from your homes will bo made without alarm or undue haste, thus showing that the only feeling that animates you in this hour of supreme trial is the regret of being unable to participate in the defense of your homes, your altars, and the graves of your kindred.
Carolinians and Georgians! the hour is at hand to prove your devotion to your country’s cause. Let all able-bodied men, from the seaboard to the mountains, rush to arms. Be not exacting in the choice of weapons; pikes and scythes will do for exterminating your enemies, spades and shovels for protecting your friends.
To arms, fellow citizens! Come to share with us our dangers, our brilliant success, or our glorious death.
While the people of South Carolina and Georgia more or less took Beauregard’s word seriously, Richmond did not. The arrogant General, they deemed, would get reinforcements if needed, but there must be proof of such a need. A blustery proclamation was not proof.
Far from being attacked at any moment, the Federals were still trying to make up their minds just how to go about the operation. All this would take some time.
What wouldn’t take time was Richmond’s response to Union General Joe Hooker’s banishment of General Burnside’s old IX Corps to the Virginia Peninsula. Southern intelligence figured it out quickly, but could make neither heads nor tails as to why it was happening. Were the Yankees planning some kind of slip into Richmond from the southeast?
To counter such a thought, on February 15, Confederate Secretary of War James Seddon wrote General Robert E. Lee about his concerns. He doubted that any large scale Federal advance would come up the Peninsula in the middle of a fairly rough winter, but still, it was better safe than sorry.
Lee agreed and first dispatched George Pickett’s Division. Following reports of 20,000 Federal troops landing at Newport News at the tip of the Peninsula, Lee ordered John Bell Hood’s Division to follow. Since both divisions were from James Longstreet’s Corps, he placed him in charge of the expedition. This was nearly a quarter of Lee’s entire force, sapping his strength by 15,000 men.
On this date, he made it official. In his order to Longstreet, Lee cautioned him to find good shelter for the men and be ready to receive the enemy. “Should the movement of the enemy from the Potomac render it expedient,” wrote Lee, “your other divisions will be ordered to join you.”
And so Lee had left himself with around 60,000 men to defend against an enemy with over twice his strength.1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 14, p777-778, 878, 882, 883-884; New York Times, February 18, 1863; P.G.T. Beauregard by T. Harry Williams; Chancellorsville by Stephen W. Sears. [↩]